This morning the Ministry of Health and Wellness held a press briefing. This was most welcome as we had not had one since January 2, and a lot has happened since then. So it was fairly long and time ran out before the Minister had got through all the questions (I am waiting for answers to mine, which could not be accommodated).
So, let me try putting things in a (rather large) nutshell:
- As of today (January 25) the central parish of Manchester will be under “enhanced COVID-19 measures” for two weeks, until Monday, February 8, 2021. Under the Disaster Risk Management Act (Enforcement Measure), the curfew hours for Manchester will begin at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, January 25 and end at 5:00 a.m. on Monday, February 8, 2021. Public gatherings are limited to ten persons. Markets will be allowed between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.
- There has been a rapid increase in cases in the parish (125 new cases from January 10 – 24). The parish accounted for 11.3% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases during that period and currently 5.3% of all total confirmed cases on the island to date. The positivity rate has been 27.8% – three times the national positivity rate of 10.8% – since January 10.
- There is non-compliance in the parish, e.g. mask-wearing and crowded events (including illegal parties). More people are reporting with COVID-19 symptoms at health facilities, and their contacts have been found to be positive. There is also an increase in hospitalization of people with respiratory illnesses there.
- There is some discussion ongoing regarding schools in the parish, some of which have reopened this year. On reopening, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Jacqueline Bisesor-McKenzie stressed that confidence in one’s prevention and control measures is paramount. I assume that this will be a matter for further debate.
- There will be no change to the rules for churches in Manchester, said Permanent Secretary Dunstan Bryan.
- The two public hospitals in the area are under pressure. Mandeville Regional Hospital is 76% full and the Percy Junor Hospital is at 83%. Other hospitals are at emergency levels: May Pen and Black River Hospitals are over 95% full.
- The Ministry is also concerned about cases in St. Ann and St. James. Stay tuned.
- On testing and private labs: The Ministry has “noted with concern” a number of ad hoc testing sites in recent weeks. There are health and safety concerns and sometimes fees are “astronomically high.” Appropriate certification and accreditation of private entities and individuals for testing is important. Currently, seven private labs with ten locations island-wide are approved for antigen testing; and five private labs with six locations islandwide for PCR testing. The approved labs must submit their results. The University Hospital of the West Indies is now offering testing for a fee, besides its public health service. The Ministry invites any other private labs interested in providing this service to contact the National Public Health Lab or visit the JANAAC website and download application forms.
- On the public side, the CMO pointed out that the number of health centres conducting testing has increased (using the jamcovid website to make appointments), and there have been mobile vans, too, visiting communities. She stressed that having a negative test does not mean you can go around without observing protocols (especially the antigen test). The most important thing is to stick to the protocols.
- When asked if there was a shortage of testing capacity, the CMO listed the areas where testing was done, including case management, influenza-like illnesses, contact tracing (currently testing is about 5,000 weekly). However, Jamaica faces challenges in obtaining the reagents needed and so they “fall behind for a day or two.”
- Vaccines: Last week the Minister tabled the Interim National Vaccination and Deployment Plan in Parliament, ensuring alignment and integration with the National COVID Response. It will be posted on the Ministry website and will be updated when new information becomes available. The Ministry will host a Town Hall Meeting on the plan in coming weeks. A National Vaccine Commission will be established as well as a National Coordinating Committee for vaccine distribution. A lot of work is going into the plan, the Minister pointed out.
- Those who have had the virus would be vaccinated (in answer to a question). It seems that people who have been vaccinated may still be able to transmit the virus, as vaccines are not 100% effective. People who are vaccinated should still adhere to infection prevention and control measures (masks, etc). It takes around five days for the Pfizer vaccine to become effective and the Moderna vaccine takes 14 days. The two-week quarantine period will remain in force for now, for people who have been vaccinated and travel to Jamaica.
- A letter from a doctor indicating that a patient has recovered could be used to travel.
- Regarding pressure from the entertainment and sporting sectors to reopen, the Minister said that it’s a question of risk assessment. There has been dialogue going on, on and off, with the Local Government Ministry and the Ministry responsible for sports (Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie is becoming rather wary, I think, saying that there is a “deficit of trust” regarding entertainment promoters).
- On the COVAX Facility the most likely vaccines we will receive are the AstraZeneca and the AstraZeneca Serum Institute of India vaccines, approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization – for delivery in April. This requires cold chain storage, which Jamaica has. After that the next available vaccine would be the Johnson & Johnson (single-dose) vaccine.
- Outside of COVAX, Cabinet had given approval to source safe vaccines. Meetings have taken place with the Ambassadors of China, Cuba, and India and Jamaica has expressed interest in obtaining them. These countries are “well advanced” in clinical trials of their vaccines, said the Minister.
- There has been a gradual increase in new confirmed cases and deaths this month – as predicted late last year – the CMO reports. There were 133 new cases yesterday, and two people died. We have had over 1,000 confirmed cases in the past two weeks and now have over 15,000 cases in total. Last week’s positivity rate was 10.8, and this has been gradually increasing too.
- However, the spike in cases has not been as sudden and extreme since the winter holidays, compared to that in the summer. The CMO regards this as a success; from November early prevention and focus on vulnerable groups (infirmaries, nursing homes etc) paid off. Surveillance measures and the media campaign also increased awareness. “Some people are listening and adhering,” said the CMO on a positive note. I am especially encouraged by this focus and the fact that communication was established and the nursing homes were made aware and reporting any concerns subsequently.
- On deaths, all those under 60 years old who have died have had significant co-morbidities, for example sickle cell, heart disease, diabetes and so on.
I hope this update helps! Undoubtedly, there will be more to follow. As Minister Tufton said, “There is no quick fix,” and we are still working our way through 2021 (as we did in 2020), taking it a day at a time, while making plans. If that makes sense. Meanwhile, we know what to do… Stay safe!